For anyone who has ever worked on a PC game and poured their heart and soul into their work, they may have imagined in an optimistic moment, “If this game sells a million copies…” Maybe it was spoken out loud, or carefully whispered so that no one else would hear. It’s the expression of the dreams and promise of success that drives so many of us. But recently I found myself somewhere I never anticipated as I listened to this ironic ending to that very statement: “… I am going to be so disappointed if that’s all it sells.” And you know what? I had to agree.
Two years ago in a previous postmortem published in Game Developer, I told you the story of Ensemble Studios, a scrappy upstart that overcame challenges to create the game Age of Empires (AoE). Since its release two years ago in the great real-time strategy (RTS) wars of 1997, approximately three million copies of AoE have been sold worldwide, along with almost a million copes of the Rise of Rome (RoR) expansion pack. The totals don’t give the whole story, though. AoE proved to be a consistent seller, hanging around the top of the PC Data charts, and even re-entered the top ten a year-and-a-half after its release. The demographics of the buyers were another surprise. Sure we had the sales to the 14- to 28-year-old male hard-core players, but we also had significant sales to older players, women of all ages, and casual game players of all sorts. That is to say we had a crossover hit on our hands. If you have ever watched the VH1 show Behind the Music, then you know the story of the upstart band that finds itself suddenly on top of the world — things change, and not always for the better. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we sank into a wild orgy of sex, fast cars, and money — despite the wishes of a couple of our guys — but this change along with the benefits of success brought us a whole new set of challenges, making our next game no easier than the first.
Designing a Sequel
It was a surprise to no one that Ensemble Studios’ next game would be a sequel to AoE, although most people probably didn’t know that we had a contract with our publisher for a sequel long before the original game was finished. Given our historically-based themes and time periods in AoE, the chosen time period for Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (AoK), the Middle Ages, practically picked itself. That was the only easy part, however. Like a band going back into the studio after a hit record, there were differing opinions of what direction to take next. Do we play it safe and stick tightly to the AoE formula, or do we get bold and daring and take the whole game genre in new directions? This is the million-dollar question every successful game is faced with when the topic of a follow-up is raised. But the successful band I’m using as an analogy is fortunate. They don’t have to contend with the unbelievably rapid pace of evolution in PC hardware and games.
Improvements to the game in every area from graphics to user interface are expected in this business as a matter of fact. Expectations can be a bitch sometimes. Take the vast demographics of AoE players that I mentioned earlier — they are the largest group of people most likely to buy the sequel — and everyone is concerned about making sure that this huge and diverse group will like the next game so much they will run out and buy it. We’ll just do more of what we did right in AoE, we said. That sounds great, but it’s almost impossible to quantify in a meaningful, detailed way. The game business is brutal to those who fail to move forward with the times, but it’s also equally brutal to those who experiment too much and stray from the expectations of the players.
A shot from a very early version of the game. Most everything shown would be revised before the game shipped.
When we started work on AoK, we thought that we could make use of our existing code and tools, and that this would make the sequel easier to create than the original. Filled with these optimistic thoughts, we concluded that we could develop AoK in a single year. This was also going to be our opportunity to add all those dream features and make our magnum opus of computer games. So we set about to do just that. To make enhancements for AoK, we had pulled together a giant wish list of features and ideas from inside and outside sources. To the game design we added all sorts of neat new features such as off-map trade, renewable resources, combat facings, sophisticated diplomacy and systems of religion, and so on. Of course, the art, sound, and game content were also going to be bigger and better and bolder and brighter and...well...you get the idea.
Several months down the road, reality reared its ugly head in big way: we had bitten off more than we could chew and the game’s design was losing focus. Instead of sticking to the core of what makes an RTS game great, we had gone off in many contradictory directions. Along with that came the realization that there was no way that we were going to finish AoK in a single year and have it anywhere close to the quality of AoE. This was a sobering time for Ensemble Studios staff and our publisher, Microsoft. While the Ensemble Studios crew adjusted quickly, it caused a few problems for some of the people at Microsoft: “Uh, guys, we’ve already gone ahead and committed to our bosses that we would have another Age of Empires game this year,” is probably a good way to paraphrase it. From this situation, a contingency plan was born. We were going to take another year to finish AoK, giving us time to get the game back on track and to create the ambitious content for it. We also had a plan to help our publisher out: we would create an in-house expansion pack for AoE. It would be a significant addition to the game, yet require only a small amount of our resources, and most importantly, it would be ready in time for Christmas 1998, taking the slot originally planned for AoK. Thus was born the RoR expansion pack. RoR helped, but it didn’t take all the pressure off us. Unlike the latitude we had with AoE, which had also come out a year late, our new deadlines for AoK were very firm and hung over us the entire time. The pressure was very much on.